When in China last month, I succeeded in getting to the Dengchigou Catholic Mission, the official starting point for the giant panda’s historical journey.
I spent about four hours in a car, being driven up into the mountains north of Ya’an City (which is a couple of hours west of Chengdu, which is the capital of Sichuan Province, which is about 2000 km southwest of Beijing, and you all know where that is so I’ll stop). It was my only journey outside a big city, so it would be a mistake to generalise about life in rural China, but I was mesmerised and terrified in equal measures by the sheer industry of the people I passed by that morning.
In the first biggish town we came to – Lushan – it was the industry of individuals I noticed, mainly men busy making, making, making things out of the world around them to make something of their lives. The speciality here seemed to be tree roots. There were workshops open to the street in which men were busy sawing, chiselling and sanding gnarled woody sculptures or varnishing the root system of what had once been a massive tree, presumably to adorn the entrance hall of some plush urban firm. Their sculptures were at once stunning and tragic.
In and around Baoxing, the next main town and the administrative seat of Baoxing County, it was not the industry of individual people that caught my eye. There was plenty of it on show, but it was hard to see amidst the full-scale mining industry that consumes this region. The raw material here is not tree roots but rock. In the industrial zone to the north of the town, factories line the street, with diamond saws spinning raw boulders into perfect table-top slabs. Trucks overloaded with vast hunks of white marble rumble in and out of urban centre (above).
Finally, about 30 km north of Baoxing, I spotted the bridge that would take us over the Donghe and into the Dengchi Valley. There is a large hoarding advertising Armand David and the Dengchigou Catholic Mission, though it’s now obscured by a couple of conifers (photo). That nobody had thought to cut them down suggests that perhaps Chinese industry does not yet extend to such out-of-the-way cultural relics or the country’s still amazing biodiversity. The successful bid to turn the mountains above this industrious valley into a World Heritage Site includes a proposal to build a museum at this precise spot “to celebrate and interpret the amazing collecting work of Pere Armand David”.
In the next post, I will recount my journey up the Dengchi Valley to the Catholic Mission.